Covering School Shootings, Leaving The Rez, And Free Press Under Siege: A Talk With Tonya Alanez

Nov 8, 2019

Before her coverage of the Parkland Shooting earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, Tonya Alanez was an editor-in-chief for Lane Community College’s student newspaper, The Torch.  She’s also a “Duck”, having graduated from the University of Oregon in 2003.  Alanez stopped by KLCC studios yesterday after speaking engagements at her alma mater.  KLCC’s Brian Bull asked her about her early life before becoming an acclaimed journalist.

Tonya Alanez, Pulitzer-winning journalist for the Sun-Sentinel, at KLCC studios.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

 WEB EXTRA: Listen to an extended interview with Alanez, where she discusses the Parkland Shooting, the infamous Killer Clown story, her advice to up-and-coming journalists, and how she feels her industry will weather upheavals and continue to draw people into its ranks. 

TRANSCRIPT OF EXTENDED INTERVIEW

ALANEZ:  A lot of history here. I lived in the Eugene area for a decade.  And I ended up going to classes at LCC.  I was a Saturday Marketeer. And that was our bread and butter, and I had a toddler at home. I was really just looking for some time out of the house.  Some stimulation for my brain other than creative-like stuff. So I started going to LCC, and I was dabbling in classes.  A little Spanish, a little yoga, a little short story writing.  Y’know, I always like to write.  

And one day you know, going to school on the bus, The Torch was on bus next to me.  I picked it up and I was reading it and there was an ad that they were looking for reporters.  And I was like, “Oh, that sounds pretty cool.  I always like to write, I’ve been on school papers before.”

So I went to their next meeting, and I walked away with my first assignment. Within a few months, I was a news editor. By the next year, I was editor in chief of The Torch.  We had a banner year.  My advisor at The Torch at the time, Pete Peterson, kept nudging me, to…”Why not get a transfer degree?  How many credits do you have?”  And I added it up, and realized, Gee, I’m not that far off if I really like focus.”  Got my two-year degree.  Pete Peterson helped me land a scholarship, a diversity scholarship, at U of O.  And he pushed me to apply to journalism school.  I graduated there in 2003.

BULL:  Now you’re back, having given a keynote speech at the University of Oregon.    Are you feeling reconnected to the Eugene area? What’s familiar and what’s changed?

ALANEZ:  Feel very, very, much.  Well, for one, I lived here a decade before ever going to school.  I didn’t move here to go to school. My daughter lives here, my ex-husband lives here.  And many, many friends that I’ve known since I was probably 18 years old live here, so it’s like, friends as tight as family.

BULL: You grew up on the Yakama reservation in Washington. Were there experiences or lessons learned there that you’ve carried with you throughout your life?

ALANEZ:  Very much so.  What I learned there was to persevere despite the odds, and against the odds. I could make a different life for myself than the rest of my family had.  I’m the first in my family to get a college degree. I don’t know if I learned what to do, I learned what not to do being released on the reservation.

BULL:  What were some things not to do?

ALANEZ:  Become a binge alcoholic.  Get into abusive relationships.  Be a criminal. End up in jail.

BULL:  Where did you get the idea it was time to explore opportunities off the reservation?

ALANEZ:  The summer I turned 13, my mom and brother and I went to my grandfather’s funeral in southern California.  Which is where I was born.  And while I was there, I was like, “Mom, I know you want to move here and have for a long time.  If you still want to, I’d be open to it.”  So we went home, we had a big yard sale, sold off a bunch of stuff, rented a great big U-Haul, and mom drove it from the reservation down to southern Cal.

BULL: What’s your cultural background, by the way? You’re part Indian?

ALANEZ:  Yes, my father’s family is Mexican-American.  And my mother’s family on her mom’s side is Yakama.  Actually we’re Cowlitz but the 1855 Allotment act that sent people to reservations is how we ended up on the Yakama Reservation.  And the Yakama Reservation is actually like 13 different bands and tribes that make up Yakama.

BULL:  Tonya,  you were part of the Sun Sentinel’s coverage of the Parkland shooting in 2018.  What was the most challenging part of that story for you?

ALANEZ:  Hmmm… for me personally.  I mean, I wasn’t the one doing all the document fights and stuff, and getting threatened with contempt and being jailed by judges, and so forth.  I had to….every day I’d just go there after school and park in the student parking lot.  And widen our source base. And uhm, teenagers are really hard to talk to, it’s hard to make them relax.

BULL: Especially talking about an incident like that.

ALANEZ:  So that was hard for me, approaching the teens.  Just cold approaching.  If I’d like called them, or we’d arranged an appointment, that was fine. Just the cold, y’know out of the blue, approaching….that was tricky with kids.

BULL: What was your technique or best practice for getting them to open up to you?

ALANEZ:  Not sure what my formula was.  One thing I think, is the March For Our Lives kids were getting so much attention and focus, that I did find the others were willing and rather delighted to have an opportunity to talk to…to feel like their voices matter, not just these rock stars.

BULL:  It’s been commented on that besides the victims, their friends, and families, responders - which include journalists – can often feel aftereffects of traumatic events.  Have you contended at times with PTSD and other conditions that follow incidents like shootings and disasters?

ALANEZ:  Uhm, I actually am diagnosed with PTSD, but that’s because of my childhood.  Uhm…I have thought it’s really interesting and it’d be fascinating, like a long-term look, because I’m thinking of the community of Parkland.  And I think that entire community is going to be dealing with PTSD for a long time.  The students, teachers, the entire school, the faculty, the families…I’d just wonder how that’s going to affect everybody.  All those kids, they were in a devastating crisis situation, scared for their lives. And then they had to go back to that same school, walk by that building.

BULL:  I was reading the summary and the timeline in the Sentinel, and it sounds like there were so many opportunities to avert the disaster, the shooting in the first place.  So many alarms that could’ve been raised…and so many logistical setbacks, including a time delay of 20 minutes on the video…the surveillance video that people just could not respond and when they did, they were already well behind the shooter.  Those things must’ve really both fascinated and frustrated you, as a reporter and a person.

ALANEZ:  It was astounding.  It seemed like everything that could go wrong went wrong in that situation.  The school resource officer didn’t act, didn’t take action.  Nobody called a Code Red for a very long time.  It didn’t seem a real clear Code Red policy.  The campus monitor – one of the campus monitors -- saw the shooter arrive on campus and get out of the Uber that brought him there.  And he watched him walk on to campus with a large, black duffle bag.  And he thought in his head, “Oh! What’s that kids’ name? What’s that kid’s name? Yeah, I remember him.”  And he actually radioed one of his colleagues, and said, “Oh, you know that one crazy boy, we call him ‘crazy boy’, what’s that name?”  And they’re like Nikolas Cruz,” and he’s like, “Oh! He’s on campus right now”. 

And he described Nikolas as looking as though he were like…on a mission. And they made some eye contact, and he said it seemed that Nikolas sped up, and that security monitor, Andrew Medina, he didn’t approach the shooter. And he should have, because he didn’t belong on campus. He wasn’t a student anymore; he’d been a troubled student.  He’d caused problems, he’d been expelled.  And if Andrew Medina…had just…he could’ve averted the whole thing. 

BULL: Sounds like a lot of red flags.

ALANEZ:  Many, many.  Through the school system, through the mental health agencies, and treatments that he had. There were so many things missed. The FBI bungled a tip.  He had posted –I believe it was on YouTube that -  “I’m going to be the next school shooter. Nikolas Cruz.”  Somebody called that in to the FBI just shortly before the shooting happened, a month or two. They didn’t follow up.

BULL: The coverage was handled; you were there as well as many of your colleagues.  And when the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to your newspaper, do you recall how you and your colleagues reacted?

ALANEZ:  Oh yeah, matter of fact I have an awesome 1-minute video clip of it. We were all gathered and standing in front of a big screen on the wall.  The Public Service Pulitzers’ the first one they announced, so we didn’t even hear who won anything else.  Because once we erupted in emotional happiness and laughter and just like, tears of joy, it was so meaningful.  And I think we….we felt like we truly earned it.   And we all felt like we really did our best work all year long.

BULL: Really gelled as a team.

ALANEZ:  Oh yeah.  I’ve been there 15 years.  Most of the other reporters I worked most closely with on these stories, they’ve been there 20 years.  So we all know how to work with each other, and we know each other’s strengths.  And know how to team up.

BULL: What would you say is your strength?  What do you add to the team, Tonya?

ALANEZ:  Uhm, well I’m often the one who…I’ll help report, but then I’ll be the writer.  I’m a strong writer.  And that’s the part I really, really take pleasure in, trying to tell a good story.  But I think I also…uhm…I try to come at all of my work with heart.  And I think that’s different from a lot of other reporters.

BULL:  We’re in time now where both people of color and journalists are dealing with a very contentious political climate. Reporters have been branded by this administration as “enemies of the people”.  The administration has held back on condemning actions by white supremacists, like we saw in Charlottesville. And this has all spiraled into a very toxic atmosphere for both groups.  And I’m curious Tonya, if this has affected both you and your work? 

ALANEZ:  Definitely.  I think this is a very, very, troubling, risky time. I think we should no longer take our First Amendment rights -or more-  our free press for granted. The “fake news” branding is damaging.  Journalists are under siege. But we’re not the enemy of the people.  I’m not the enemy of the people.  And it’s ludicrous because we are the people, and our voices are the people’s voices, and I don’t understand when in American history did being questioning and being inquisitive and practicing skepticism made you an enemy of the people.

BULL: For up and coming journalists of color, people from under-represented communities, do you have any advice on how they can endure and prosper in this climate?

ALANEZ:  What really, really like, pushed me ahead I think, is I was accepted into what’s called the Metpro Program at the LA Times.  It’s a minority editorial training program. And it is for reporters of color or non-traditional or maybe reporters who…their first steps just…it wasn’t going right. And it’s an incredible program, and they still do it, and I would really recommend looking into programs like that.  It’s a nine month program, they put you up  into housing.  You do six-week rotations covering the city, covering a police precinct, covering a state desk, investigations, maybe environment, maybe general assignment.  Everyone had to do a six- week stint at a bureau.  And it was really, really hardcore, it was competitive, it was like journalism boot camp.  But the best thing about it was you got an LA Times byline as a staff writer.

BULL:  That must’ve very exciting to see your byline, your name in print there for the very first time.

ALANEZ:  Especially on the LA Times. Yes, I mean…I got my first byline only like 13 months after I graduated from journalism school.  I couldn’t believe it, things are working out and going down this charmed path.

BULL: What was the story, by the way?

ALANEZ:  My very first byline at the LA Times happened on Christmas Eve, and it was on the front page.  I had been covering the city of Glendale which has a very, very, vibrant Armenian community.  And there was a private school – a college- that closed down, and they had an extensive library of Armenian books.  And they were donating all of it to the city library.  And so I explored the Diaspora, and learned about Armenia.  And it was this cool story.  This story of giving something precious that meant something to these people. And it was a great story to tell, and I love that it ran on Christmas Eve.

BULL: How was it received?

ALANEZ:  I think it was good, I don’t think I got too many “wows”.  But I did land a Column One at the LA Times. And that was the golden ring that everyone - there’s ten metros, and we all really wanted that. And I got one. And that story was amazing, it was this man Fred Brito, and basically he’s a confidence man.  But not for bad things or to rip people off.  He would really super, super exaggerate his background and experiences and professional abilities.

And he kept landing jobs for major non profits.  And like, something like a kidney foundation, and then something else, and something else.  And when he got caught, he’d gotten hired at UCLA as the director for the donors program.  And while they caught on that the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing (BULL LAUGHS) and was fired, The Bruin, the paper at UCLA, that’s where we saw it.  And we pursued it from there. It’s not against law to fake your endorsements.  Unless it’s like a doctor or lawyer, where you need a license or certificate, but basically just lying about this experience, “I’ve got this experience…”.  And then the deeper I dug…he had presented himself as a priest from the Norbertine Sect, or whatever they call it.  And he got himself a position at a church in New Mexico.  And he was there about half a year.  And they loved him, and he was doing quinceanera and baptisms, and you know…when he got found out, the community was freaked. Like, “Oh my God, he baptized our baby, but is he really baptized anymore?”

And Fred had this…it just went deeper and deeper, and deeper.  And what I really learned with him, he was real psychology lesson for me.  The more I just gently asked and pried, more and more he’d let it out.  But he wouldn’t offer it.  So I’d go back to him, asking “How about this?”  Then he’d just spill it and go on. He listed a reference and the reference phone number.  Fred had a cell phone with that number. And he was that reference (laughs) So when they’d call, he’d get on, do his voice a little different, I guess…and give himself a raving review, then he’d go get hired again at some good job.  

So I landed a Column One out of it. And I got a lot and lot of good feedback on it.  Dateline ended up running it.  And then a couple months, a few months after I had left the LA Times, my program was up, I was now in South Florida, working…the reporter at the LA Times called and they were asking for Fred’s cell phone number, because he’d become the head of the Red Cross Disaster relief (BULL LAUGHS).  And it became clear he didn’t know what he was doing…so it became another story.  And then it was like “Red Cross? Two months ago we had Fred Brito on the front page!”

BULL:  That sounds like a lost chapter of “Better Call Saul” or something.

ALANEZ:  It really, really is.  It was a fantastic story.  I got an email within the last three to four months, the subject line said ‘A Pulitzer Prize?’ and it was from Fred Brito!  (LAUGHS) He emailed me, and it was saying “Hello, and congratulations on the Pulitzer.”  And it was a short message, “You might be happy to know it’s been like …I’ve been like, crime free or trouble free for like, 8 years.  Or something.” He had a clean slate.  I emailed him back.

BULL:  Your career has involved coverage of criminal courts, the state legislature, killer clowns, natural disasters…what’s been your favorite beat or most compelling story to date?

ALANEZ:  I hate superlatives, because it forces you in to the one…so I’ll say among…the favorites are…I’ve written more stories though that are just so crazy and beyond, you couldn’t make it up.  Because that’s how South Florida is.  But the Killer Clown Story is just mind blowing.  And last year, I got to do a podcast. I did my first podcast.  I wrote it, I did some of the reporting.  And it came out really great. That was an awesome new experience.

But…the Killer Clown of Wellington.  I work a 2-10pm shift, so I’m the night cops reporter.  I think it was around 6pm, the Palm Beach Sheriff’s office puts out a news release that after 26 years, they’ve made an arrest in the killer clown case.

I’d never heard of it.  I was like,  ‘What? Killer clown case?”  Well, I looked in our archives, and we had covered it extensively at the time. So I had a fantastic archive to build stories off of, and background, and to work with. So right away that night, as a daily, I was able to turn a really good story. 

Now, I didn’t say what the clown did…the killer clown -

BULL:  It doesn’t sound good.

ALANEZ:  No.  A person dressed like a clown carrying balloons and a little basket of flowers, pulled up to house in Wellington, Florida, knocked on door, Marlene Warren, answered the door and said something like,  “Oh how nice” and the clown shot her in face and killed her.  Then went and got into its car with no plates and drove away.  And there was never an arrest.  But police early on had their suspects. And it involved Marlene’s husband who owned a, like…Budget rental car or something?  There was a young repo woman there, who it was rumored or it was pretty well known, they were clearly having an affair. He was paying the rent for her apartment.  

BULL: That’s a little seamy.

ALANEZ:   Yeah.  Okay, those two were the suspects. Immediately. But they never had any real evidence. It was all super, super, circumstantial.  Go forward 26 years when they make the arrest, it is Sheila Keen.  Sheila Keen was that repo girl way back when at Mike Warren’s car lot.  She was arrested in Abingdon, Virginia.  She was married to…Mike Warren.

BULL: Small world.

ALANEZ:  Crazy world.  So I also immediately…I think it was a Thursday…got assigned, to go to Abingdon.  Go turn a story for the Sunday paper about who are they, how are they perceived there, how do they come across?  So I start with neighbors.  It was a wonderful, wiling neighbor who loved and adored them, and was good friends with them, and did barbecues with them and such.  She gave me a two hour interview and was telling me the good things about them. But along the way she kinda slipped and she referred to “Debby”. 

And I was like, “What? What? Who’s Debby?”  And she got a look…like, “Oh.”  And she’s like, “Oh, we call Sheila ‘Debby’.”  And I’m like, “What?  Her name’s Debby? You know her as Debby Warren? Did you know her name was Sheila?”  “No.”  They didn’t know her name was ever Sheila.  So basically what I figured out was that she’d moved to Virginia, she was married to the husband of the woman she killed, and she had a new name.  She was Debby Warren.  No more Sheila Keen.

BULL: You can’t make this up.

ALANEZ:  Nope, you cannot.

BULL:  I have just one last question here, and it’s broad.  But I’d like to know your thoughts.  Over the last 20-30 years we’ve seen the rise of the internet, a drop in ad revenue for newspapers,  anumber of newspapers being bought out by corporate conglomerates.  Family papers in decline. The media landscape itself being dramatically rewritten over last 20-30 years.  So as an active journalist right now, Tonya, where do you see the field  of journalism headed right now?

ALANEZ:  Mmm, good question.  I don’t’ know, but I think in spite of all the denigration media is taking currently, it is kind of  creating a generation or an era or a time when it’s making a lot of people super interested in journalism.  And I think the same happened with Watergate and All The President’s Men.  Everybody wanted to be journalist after that. And I think right now, a lot of people are feeling like that’s a career worth pursuing.

BULL:  We see an administration routinely bashing the New York Times, Washington Post, many other papers who do not give him favorable coverage 24-7.  And while there are some who have that tag “fake news” and are using it against reporters, I can’t help but wonder if there are some who are seeing this happening and are intrigued and fascinated by journalism and what it can do: make the powerful accountable and uneasy.

ALANEZ:  Absolutely.  And I think what attracts a lot of people to journalism? You’re a journalist, you end up…with…a lot of access.  And for the most part, people feel compelled to return your calls, and respond to you.  So I think people realize it’s a powerful thing that you are responsible for.  Just somewhere along the way, you start contemplating how sacred it is, and really how important it is to protect our free press but also practice it as much as possible. 

And even just keep pushing when people are like…we were with the Parkland coverage, early, early on, people were like “Enough already! Why don’t you stop picking off the scab of the community…just let us heal! Quit, quit, quit!”  But we kept finding out so much information, that we felt was of the utmost importance for the public to know and learn from.  And we kept going.

That’s…yeah…don’t let people try to shut you down by like, “Oh, stop…it’s not a story anymore.”  Or “No story here!” Whenever someone says that, you know there’s a story there.

And I’ve never ever written a story to sell a newspaper.  A lot of people like to use that as a little dig at reporters.

BULL:  Anything else you’d like to add or talk about while I have the recorder going?

ALANEZ:  I would just say if you are in the vicinity and you have any interest in journalism, LCC has a program where I got started, and it’s got a student newspaper. That gives you hands on experience.  You got a fantastic journalism school right in your town. A lot of opportunity, and journalism is the only career I can think of where you hit the ground so fast and so young.  Journalism is very welcoming to youth.

BULL:  Tonya Alanez, I appreciate your time. 

ALANEZ:  Thanks for having me. 

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